“She’s not coming to take you away.” It’s a hollow promise. An 11-year-old black boy is snatched away from his white foster mom. The life he knew ripped out from under him. It causes a bitterness that lasts well into his teenage years in this thoughtfully and emotionally charged coming-of-age drama.
Writer/director Shola Amoo’s semi-autobiographical portrait recaptures his experience as a foster child of African descent. Femi, the lead character, is his alter ego, as the film retraces the confusion the filmmaker felt living in two worlds and two different cultures. With anecdotes from others who have navigated through similar circumstances, Amoo immerses audiences in an angst-heavy metamorphosis that never divulges if the protagonist will ever acclimate.
Femi (Tai Golding) is a happy kid, living in the English countryside town of Lincolnshire with his foster parent Mary (Denise Black). He’s oblivious to the fact that all his friends are white and he’s the only black kid for miles around. His happiness is tied to his friendships, Mary’s love and a very simple, sheltered life. With a great sense of betrayal, he is torn away from all he knows by his birth mother Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) who abandoned him.
Life in South London is a far cry from the country. Angered as a child, beaten by his mom and acting out in school, Femi grows up to be a troubled adolescent (Sam Adewunmi). His refuge is his relationship with his mates Dean (Rasaq Kukoyi) and Tayo (Jayden Jean-Paul-Denis). His peril involves local hustler Mace (Demmy Ladipo) and his muscular henchman Dwayne (Tuwaine Barrett) who attempt to lure Femi into thug life. His saviors may be his very nurturing teacher Mr. Williams (Nicholas Pinnock) and a new love interest Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea). Will he trudge into darkness? Or will he find his way?
That sense of not belonging is a common nightmare for foster or adopted kids. In Amoo’s enlightening screenplay, he takes that anxiety a step further by examining the consequences of a child experiencing a drastic change in location and culture. Friendly rural world one day. Tense urban low-income neighborhood the next. Looking like your new peers yet feeling like an alien. It’s enough to give anyone an identity crisis.
Abandonment issues are profound too. Femi knows nothing about his real dad. It haunts him. It’s a debilitating burden. No wonder he stumbles as he deals with an inept young single mother and is tempted by a crook who offers him paternal guidance. The young man is needy, fragile and disturbed. Psychologically and emotionally imbalanced. Susceptible. A perfect protagonist.
Amoo’s style of direction varies between realism and surreal moments. The mother’s emotional abuse, the fights at school and the seductive criminal life feel authentic. Playing with the voices, juxtaposing rural scenes and city ones and tinkering with the rocky pairing of English and African cultures takes the proceedings to a very contemporary place, one that has been observed recently in other timely films like Blue Story. The social, political and familial implications depicted underscore the intelligence and forethought that permeates Amoo’s project.
Tai Golding marks his screen debut and Sam Adewunmi has very few credits before this film. Both young actors give seamless, fluid performances. You never question the kids’ motives, desires, fears and stress. Gbemisola Ikumelo (BBC’s Famalam) portrays the most conflicted character who is not all that sympathetic, initially. Somehow, she takes Yinka from selfish, cruel inexperienced mom to an overwhelmed person learning how to meet her son’s needs. It’s a powerful transition.
Shots of the English countryside, London’s mean streets and bustling downtown Lagos, Nigeria all look vivid through the lens of cinematographer Stil Williams (Dear Mr Shakespeare). Sunsets over plains, claustrophobic apartments and portrait shots of young faces are vibrant. Colors, textures and lighting are beyond reproach.
Production designer Antonia Lowe is equally deft dressing the various locations—especially the opulent houses in Lagos. Scenes fit together snugly due to editor Mdhamiri Á Nkemi’s judicious cuts. Segun Akinola (Black and British: A Forgotten History) blends music into the footage that highlights the right moments. Costume designer Holy Smart dresses the cast in clothes fit for farmers, urban dwellers and Nigerian bourgeoisie.
If there is one knock in this film, it’s that too often it makes white people loving and nurturing and blacks hostile and uncaring. This is somewhat muted by the Mr. Williams and Tope, but still too much of the depiction of black urban life is dismal and almost beyond redemption. Also, the Mace and Dwayne characters are shallowly written and cliché. They needed more of a backstory. More depth.
Timely themes, strong acting, insightful direction and beautiful footage tend to make up for an ending that feels more like a rationalization than a resolution.
Culture shock, abandonment issues and inner-city turmoil produce a PTSD that is rarely acknowledged in film in this way. For that, The Last Tree is a triumph.